Remembering Ishaq Maragha: Martyr of the battle of empty stomachs


Ishaq Maragha
Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network 

16 November 2017 marks the 34th anniversary of the death of Palestinian prisoner Ishaq Maragha, one of four Palestinians whose lives were taken – three through forced-feeding – during a hunger strike for justice inside Israeli prisons. Maragha, who died in 1983, three years after he was grievously wounded by Israeli forced feeding, was not only a martyr but a longtime leader of the Palestinian prisoners’ movement and the Palestinian liberation struggle.

Along with Ali al-Jaafari and Rasim Halawa, he was martyred by Israeli force feeding aimed at breaking the hunger strike of Nafha prison in 1980. Fellow prisoner Anis al-Dawla also lost his life in 1980 from fatigue, malnutrition and disease caused by his solidarity strike in Ashkelon prison in support of the prisoners of Nafha.

Born in the town of Silwan near Jerusalem in 1942, he became a member of the Arab Nationalist Movement – the movement founded by George Habash, Wadie Haddad and other Arab and Palestinian young people looking towards liberation, unity and socialism – and was considered one of the first members of the movement in Palestine, joining in 1959 at the age of 17. He had four children, Jamal, Amal, Amina and Musa.

As a member of the ANM, he traveled to Egypt for military training in 1964. He joined the ranks of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine from the very beginning of its foundation on December 11, 1967 from the Palestine Section of the ANM. Shortly over one year later, in February 1969, he was arrested by Israeli occupation forces on charges of being a leader in the PFLP in the Jerusalem area. After three years in Israeli prison including a period of intense torture under occupation, he was released from prison in August 1972.

As Abdel-Nasser Ferwana, Palestinian researcher on prisoners’ affairs notes, this was only a “fighter’s rest” for Maragha. In February 1975 he was once again seized by occupation forces and accused of participating in the resistance to occupation; he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.

Ferwana recalled meeting Maragha several times while visiting his imprisoned father, who would laer be released in the 1985 prisoner exchange with the Palestinian resistance. Maragha said to him as a young man, “The prisons will be destroyed and your father and I will be liberated.”

During his time in prison, he was transferred to Ramle, Beersheba and Nafha prisons; he was well-known among the prisoners as an example of a dedicated worker and a revolutionary leader. Ferwana caled him a “distinguished leader, loved by everyone, a brilliant instigator and a dedicated fighter…one of the pillars of the prisoners’ movement.” He became one of the leaders of the prison organization of the PFLP, responsible for international relations.

In 1980, Nafha prison was opened as an “exile and cemetery for the prisoners’ movement leaders;” Maragha was one of the first to be transferred there. The prisoners began their strike that year, on 14 July 1980. One of the hunger strikers, Abdel-Rahim al-Noubani, chronicled the development of the strike.

The prisoners demanded:

1. The prisoners demand the installation of beds
2. The prisoners demand access to a radio and television
3. The prisoners demand the improvement of the quality and quantity of food
4. The prisoners demand access to Arabic and Hebrew books and newspapers
5. The prisoners demand the expansion of windows, allowing more sun and air into the cell
6. The prisoners demand an end to the policy of collective and individual punishment, solitary confinement, depriving them food during their isolation, and only providing them with bread and water.
7. The prisoners demand the visiting allowance to be prolonged to one hour every two weeks
8. The prisoners demand access to winter and summer clothes, as well as blankets
9. The prisoners demand permission to buy food and vitamins from the prison canteen, which has been hitherto denied
10. The prisoners demand their walk allowance extend from 15 minutes to an hour

As Shahd Abusalama wrote chronicling her own father’s history in the Nafha strike, “Whenever Palestinian prisoners have gone on hunger strike, the Israeli authorities have responded by punishing them collectively. The Nafha hunger strike was no exception.”

After 10 days of hunger strike which drew growing international and Palestinian support, the Israeli occupation attempted a particularly cruel and dangerous form of force-feeding against 26 prisoners in which boiling water and salt were poured down tubes forced down the prisoners’ throats. In the case of Ishaq Maragha, Rasem Halawi and Ali al-Jaafari, the tube was not fully inserted and instead entered their lungs; the boiling water poured into the tube burned and destroyed their lungs. Halawi and Jaafari died almost immediately, killed by Israeli force feeding on their hunger strike.

Ishaq Maragha, Ali al-Jaafari, Rasem Halawa

Maragha later related the experience to al-Noubani:

“When we were put in the waiting room, the three of us collapsed onto a wooden bench, overcome with extreme exhaustion and fatigue. The pain was ripping our chest and gut apart. But it seemed that Ali Jaafari was the suffering the most; he grabbed the bars of the iron door, his drained voice shouting out to the section’s jailer and clinic doctor alternately, asking them to provide us with emergency assistance and treatment. He then turned to me suddenly and said, ‘Abu Jamal, I’m dying, I’m dying!’ I tried to calm him and raise his spirits, and boost his strength – for I had noticed something in him that I myself did not feel, despite the fact that we had both gone through the same torment.

Ali al-Jaafari started shouting again, ‘Abu Jamal, my legs have died, I can no longer feel them, they’re as cold as ice.’ I was helpless, and could do nothing but say to him, ‘Don’t be afraid, Ali, here comes the doctor, don’t worry.’ He suddenly shouted again, for the third and last time: ‘My arms have died, Abu Jamal.’ I was as drained as he was, and as he said this to me, my eyes filled with tears; I saw his last gasp escape from his deteriorated lung to his broken nose by the zonda hose; canals filled with blood and pain opened up inside him. His head was slightly bent over to his right shoulder and his cold hands were still holding onto the bar of that damned iron door. His gracious self slid away, and his pure soul left his body, and all the while he stood there, like a palm tree that had lasted a hundred years drying out. We rested the body of our martyr on the ground, shaking with sobs. In that moment, Rasem and I forgot we shared the same fate as he.”

Maragha also reported that the prison doctor swore that he would not let him die, not out of concern for his life, but because “I will not let them make you a national hero.”

The strike continued after the martyrdom of al-Jaafari and Halawa; Maragha became a key spokesperson for the strike to lawyers and before the world. After 33 days, the prisoners’ ended their strike with a victory in all of their demands.

Maragha was then transferred to Beersheba prison as his health deteriorated further and without the provision of any treatment until he died on 16 November 1983 of his ongoing injuries and wounds caused by his torture under forced feeding during the Nafha strike, leaving a legacy of struggle, sacrifice and commitment above all to the liberation of Palestine, his land and his people.

Ishaq Maragha was a beloved leader of the Palestinian prisoners’ movement and a symbol of the leading role of Palestinian prisoners in the struggle for the liberation of Palestine, whose bodies and lives are on the line on a daily basis in a direct confrontation with occupation. The hunger strikes of Palestinian prisoners are a collective means of struggle and immense self-sacrifice for dignity and freedom.

On the 34th anniversary of the passing of Ishaq Maragha, Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network remembers him, Ali al-Jaafari, Rasim Halawa and the long legacy of the martyrs of the prisoners’ struggle – and their commitment to Palestinian and global liberation. Their deepest and most precious sacrifice must urge all of us around the world who stand with Palestinian rights, freedom and liberation to intensify and escalate our work for the freedom of the imprisoned leaders of the Palestinian people today. As plans for regional warfare and a so-called “deal of the century” promulgated by the United States and Israel with the backing of Saudi Arabia and reactionary forces threaten the Palestinian people, the people of the region and the world, the legacy of Ishaq Maragha and his fellow Palestinian prisoners can and must inspire us all to struggle at this critical moment to defend the Palestinian cause and struggle to achieve their goals of return and liberation.

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